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Urbanisation, smart cities and the future of energy

VanesaCastan- Broto20 September 2016

The Seminar on EU-India Cooperation on Sustainable Urbanization took place in Pune, on the 15-16th September 2016 in a cooperative and multi-disciplinary atmosphere. The workshop was organized by the Global Relations Forum from Pune and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Academic Foundation and it was supported by the European Union’s Delegation to India and Bhutan. During the two days, delegates discussed what is smart in the territorial and demographic transformations associated with urbanization in India.

‘Smart’ is a multidimensional promise for better services, better environments, more educated people. The discussions suggested that, in many ways, smart is nothing else than a variation on the preoccupations about the shortcomings of the city in the twenty-first century: Eco cities, sustainability, future proof cities… are all labels that indicate a will to improve the livability of our cities. They all have something in common: an interest on the simultaneous possibility of technological and social transformations. Yet, focusing on characterizing the city as smart, low carbon, green, or ecological may distract from actually thinking through practical solutions to address the challenges of urban life.

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In my talk I focused on two questions which I think are, specifically, useful to understand the urban energy transition in India. The first question is: why does energy matter to city dwellers? It is a way to also ask: what is the lived experience of energy in each city? The second question is: what kind of interventions can bring about an energy transition?

With regards to the first question, my insights draw from my project ‘Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes’, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, which aims to understand from a comparative perspective how energy is embedded in everyday existence. The first insight from this project is that social and material relations with energy in any given city are unique. They belong to its city as they depend on the local culture, on the specific history of infrastructure development, and, given the political character of energy, on the way in which energy politics are played at the local level.

For example, some of the case studies I have been comparing have been Hong Kong, Bangalore and Maputo. Of the three cases, Hong Kong is the only one which has a homogeneous energy landscape, based upon traditional models of fossil fuel electrification. In contrast, Mozambique’s population relies mostly on charcoal and other biomass fuels, with electricity covering only 8% of the total energy consumed. The energy landscape of Bangalore is characterized by its diversity. All manners of energy sources and means of provision coexist in the city. Energy needs are as unequal as unequal is the society of Bangalore. Generally, the intermittency of energy services characterizes the energy landscape. In conclusion, each of these cities has to be looked at independently, in relation to different problems. In Bangalore, we know that increasing the availability of electricity alone, for example, is not improving the reliability of the system, let alone facilitating energy access to the urban poor. We need context-tailored solutions, in which attention is paid to the specific factors that shape the provision and use of energy in every city.

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My second question is thus, where are the possibilities for action: not just what to do about global energy challenges, but also who should do it and how. Past research on global climate change action included the review hundreds of climate change innovations, concluding that experimentation is a key means to create positive action all over the world, Europe, India, you name it.

This means appreciating the value of localized, context-specific, scale-appropriate alternatives which respond directly to the needs of urban dwellers. Here, I am particularly interested on what is the role of planning? In Bangalore, for example, there is an urgent need to understand the interactions between the system of urban planning and that of delivering energy services, as they both operate in a completely uncoordinated manner. Planning has a big role to play, not necessarily in a spatial sense, but rather, as a means to facilitate partnership building and build up collaborative institutions. Planning is a key instrument whereby local needs can be met by bridging different forms of knowledge, bringing together top-down and bottom-up approaches, and, ultimately, making possible strategies for co- designing livable cities.

 

Further reading:

A survey of urban climate change experiments in 100 cities by Vanesa Castán Broto and Harriet Bulkeley


Vanesa Castán Broto is a senior lecturer and co-director of MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Her work spans a range of issues in developing cities, including disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation and energy supply.